3 Insights from Brick and Mortar Retail

While ecommerce has taken center stage in the past decade, we still have a lot to learn from traditional brick and mortar businesses. Physical retail still makes up 90% of all purchases in North America, and is still predicted to remain well over 80% within the next five years. This post is the third in my series about top take-aways from each industry I’ve worked in that are universal truths we can apply to any industry.

1. Your front line employees make or break you

Everything that you do working in the corporate office of a retail company (the support center, may of them call themselves) needs to support your team of employees that deal with customers in your stores. Each and every policy can have a negative or positive impact on the customer experience, and you are relying on staff spread across the country and globe to provide a consistent and positive experience. There are so many ways to get this wrong.

Every marketing effort, promotion, or policy change must be communicated in advance simply. Every communication to your field must be clear, and prioritized. You have minimal time to train and communicate with your front line staff. The majority of their time is spent doing inventory, merchandising, pretending they are having a great day and serving customers. They don’t have time to read newsletters, manuals, and sit on conference calls with you.

Store employees know the customer so intimately that you would be foolish not to utilize those insights to make your operations and marketing better. They know who buys what products, they know what flies off the shelf, and they know how to sell, sell, sell. Good retailers take advantage of this knowledge and promote from within those who are good leaders, who inspire others and who can share key customer insights and tidbits to keep teams successful.

No matter what your industry, you must facilitate a culture of peer support and equip your employees with all the resources they need to support the customer. When you short-change employees, it trickles down to your customers, turning their interactions negative.

2. Try working in the store if you think it’s so easy

From the first week of training at Advance Auto Parts and helping out during holiday rush hours at The Body Shop, we got to experience first-hand the pressure of selling to customers, knowing the products and experiencing the wrath of the customer for a policy gone wrong. The staff went easy on us, tackling the hard problems and so we wouldn’t screw up the sale.

All corporate employees need to spend a little time doing the hard work so you can understand how irritating it is to hear the store muzak, how demanding customers can be, and learn why it’s impossible to stock, put up signage, sell products, pull sales reports and coach employees at the same time. Retailers are fortunate to be closer to customers than manufacturers or etailers, but they also have unique opportunity to disappoint if service or atmosphere are not up to par.

Give your corporate employees the chance to learn first-hand what it takes to serve the customer, and the chance to hear feedback verbatim from customers in the field. The only way they can identify and improve the product and experience is to empathize directly and learn about the customers’ experience.

3. It takes ingenuity to get a customer to their feet and to physically come to you

Retailers struggle with the challenge of getting feet through the doorway when mall traffic decreases. A good portion of their traffic is not purposeful, meaning these customers may not have gone out of their way to go to the store that day, they may be wandering the mall or shopping center. Your window displays and your entrance offers need to be on point to convince a wanderer to stop in.

Inciting a prospect to do work in order to purchase from you is very difficult. So in addition to using your marketer’s bag of tricks, you need to make things as easy for a prospect as possible. Focusing on value-added experiences and the physical benefits of being in person (like demos) for some product categories is one way to set yourself apart.

At the Body Shop we offered makeovers, used fragrance diffusers to attract smell-o-philes, and did lotion and scrub demonstrations. We used the loyalty program to host customer appreciation events and we even hosted traveling mall makeover tours.

As technology increasingly plays in the real world and not just on a computer screen thanks to AR and VR experiences, retailers can leverage digital apps and assets to improve the customer experience in store. In the mall space, that can mean “magic” mirrors that detect your size, virtual changing rooms and fitting technology, and makeup apps! Retailers need to keep pace with digital brands and invest heavily in technology to keep up.

In the non-retail world, think about how you can use immersive technology to help your sales team sell, your distribution team pack and deliver, and your service team better utilize their time. The best implementations enable employees to better serve customers, whether through AI and machine learning, data access and reporting, or simply providing instruction and organization. Driving user action is hard! Your technology should aid your customer to proceed along the customer journey, aid your prospect in making the right choices, and enable your associates to assist.

Learning from Retailers

The biggest learning from my time working at retailers with brick-and-mortar locations is that in order to support your customers and drive sales you also need to treat your employees as customers. Taking care of employees eases the burden on them, allowing them to do their best work in service of your customers. It also allows great ideas and insights to find their way back into your strategic plans and the writing of your brand stories.

In addition, democratizing the data about customer insights and customer behavior, ensuring that it is accessible by everyone in the field, allows employees to take ownership of how they manage meeting their numbers. You shouldn’t overwhelm with too much information. Just make the most important KPIs available and let teams hold themselves accountable to success.

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What I learned working in CPG

I was lucky that I happened to stumble into the opportunity to work for a Unilever company just out of college. I started as a temp employee supporting the medical marketing department at Slim-Fast Foods, and later came to discover my love for CRM (Customer Relationship Marketing). During my time spent at Unilever, Clorox and L’Oreal (Slim-Fast, Burt’s Bees and The Body Shop) I learned a lot about branding, product development and forecasting, and the difference between body butter and hand lotion, among other things. The insights I share with you today all belong to the theme of building authentic connections. Connections with both your consumers and your colleagues.

Here are some of my top insights:

1. Branding is art + science and it can be learned

Many brands are faced with attempting to develop loyalty and relationships with consumers at a distance. Because CPG and manufacturers sell their products through retailers, they have very few opportunities to get consumer information or purchase behavior. Having a unique brand voice becomes extremely challenging. This is why Unilever and other top tier branding companies have brand universities and handbooks. I attended Unilever’s Marketing Academy for a week in Tarrytown, NY. There, up and coming marketers learn a consistent method for branding via the Unilever BrandKey, as well as meet and learn from each other.

We saw a presentation from the Dove team who originally came up with the Real Beauty concept and learned about how they brought it to life. We worked on case studies together, and even went to a consumer’s home and talked with her in her bathroom and laundry room to learn about how she uses her products and why she chooses them.

A Glimpse into The BrandKey

The BrandKey is a distinctive way to visualize the essence of your brand, as you can see below.

Unilever Brand Key

What great CPG players understand is that there are multiple emotional factors that tie into brand loyalty, not just logical factors. A brand must stand for something, in addition to providing product benefits and value. This is where the art comes in. You can distill down your brand into a understandable brand key, but without the knowledge and finesse to communicate it and resonate emotionally, you haven’t build a great brand presence.

2. Work can be fun, if you make the fun happen

Thanks to my Dutch counterparts and US colleagues at Unilever, I learned that work and fun should be combined wherever possible. We tasted the best ice creams in the store to help decide on our favorite flavors to send to the flavor house to emulate for a new flavor of Slim-Fast. Leaders held off-site meetings at a beautiful marina and a global leadership meeting in South Beach, for which I provided a beachy tropical soundtrack. We had a chef prepare some of our healthy recipes for the team to taste and try together.

One cultural difference I found very interesting – in the Netherlands when it’s your birthday it’s your responsibility to bring your own birthday cake and share with everyone. I hear that birthdays are very important to the Dutch, and they take pride in remembering everyone’s birthday. We can all learn a little from the concept of taking personal responsibility for creating fun for yourself and others.

Much to my later personal enjoyment and potential career pitfall, I took the fun mandate to heart as I proceeded along my career path. Somehow, every excursion, trip or company party I managed to attend or plan ended up revolving around good food, camaraderie and discovery. I’ve been written up in the paper for orchestrating outrageous food competitions, and I’ve known to take a long lunch here or there to attend a new restaurant food tasting for my food blog.

Entertaining corporate parties and cultural events can’t replace a good boss, respect from your peers, and satisfying work that you enjoy. But they help build a shared sense of community with your group of work folks and give everyone things to look forward to other than Friday afternoon.

3. Corporate work can reflect your values.

My time at Burt’s Bees and The Body Shop showed me that companies can truly focus efforts on sustainability and fair trade sourcing and make a difference to people around the world. At Burt’s Bees, our offices and warehouses and production facilities were zero waste to landfill. We sorted and composted and were held accountable for our waste and energy usage. The entire company went to volunteer to plant community gardens, and maintain gardens with SEEDS in Durham. We conducted clothing drives to donate clothes to migrant farm workers whose arms were burned by pesticides. Our packaging team worked with innovative recycled and compostable materials while our product development team used unique real ingredients in an open lab, made possible because they didn’t use harsh chemicals in their formulas. Glamour visited the lab and got to make their own custom balm.

At The Body Shop we took up a different charity cause each month and collaborated with our stores each quarter to help generate money for worthy causes. We fought globally against animal testing. We celebrated uniqueness in our staff and field teams. We learned and trained our teams about the communities and fair trade farms where our ingredients came from.

Bringing teams together around a shared value to make an impact, even if in a small area, can energize everyone and unite them for a common goal. By recognizing that we are here to spend our time doing more than simply selling a product and making money, we can tap into more authentic connections with one another and get more enjoyment out of our time working together.

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3 Things I Learned Working in Tech

Drawing upon my experience working in a number of different industries, I’m ready to start sharing the top lessons from each industry that can be applied elsewhere. Let’s start with my last gig, Director of Analytics and Digital Engagement at PointSource / Globant, a global digital transformation firm. Essentially they do software engineering for enterprise companies (and so much more).

Insight #1: Agile can drive creation and efficient collaboration


For those of you not in the software arena, Agile is a framework that champions agility, personal responsibility, and independent yet interconnected working. Software development often requires that you start a project when you don’t exactly know the problem that you’re solving and you don’t necessarily know how you’ll end up accomplishing it. Because of this, team members all work independently in technical and knowledge discovery but also must frequently share information. This is one reason why they have daily standup scrum meetings for 15 minutes each morning to report on progress and keep the project moving.

Because projects have many interdependent steps, team members each track their own daily work, follow up for help, and monitor in real-time the progress happening on the project. Documentation happens in a central system. The scrum master is the servant leader of the team who helps everything run smoothly.

Work is broken up into (usually) two week chunks called sprints. After each two week sprint, the team must demonstrate in a sprint review what they have accomplished to the larger group of stakeholders. That demo could be screenshots, a working model, or a successful server call. They key is get feedback from stakeholders continuously, in order to prioritize the work items coming up next and to allow for improvement and iteration. Every two weeks the remaining work is reprioritized and rejiggered. So at the end you may not end up with what you originally thought you would. But what you’ve ended up with is a smart, efficient product that has taken all the changes into account that happened along the way and utilized the resources effectively.

Agile should be used more frequently, even outside of software development. After 6 months or more, your goals and circumstances have almost certainly changed. It’s simply more zen to work with the current reality rather than to try to fit the past’s prediction of the future. In marketing, McKinsey explains one agile approach where a focused team or pod of specialists is broken away from their day-to-day work to do iterative experiments. TechRepublic has a good article about other ways to use Agile in a non-tech or software environment.

Insight #2: UX is Make-or-Break

Wrigley SeatsForget the Field of Dreams. You can build it, but that doesn’t mean they will come. If you don’t understand the journey customers take before, during and after their potential interactions with you, you will never get your customer experience right. You can’t simply come at it with what you want to get people to do. The lens must be one of easing the struggles of the user, fulfilling the customer’s needs, and allowing for seamless interactions in users’ every day lives.

We won’t forget that the user’s needs will be balanced with the business’s return on investment. For our clients, I created a prioritization model to rank new software features based on potential user value, business value, and level of effort/time. These factors all play into your capabilities roadmap, whether you are in software or not, because almost every large project touching your customers involves some form of digital transformation project.

When you are doing (good) software development, it starts with customer research based on data, a comprehensive strategy and user experience design. Of course you need visual design and great engineering to get your interaction or software to completion, but without customer or user focus, all you’ll have is attrition.

Insight #3: Innovation is scary and exciting but lack of innovation = death

Innovation chalkboardAt least half of the things a developer or architect is asked to do on a project they have never done before. They may be familiar with concepts, languages or platforms but each project is a unique puzzle to solve. They just read documentation and experiment and try things until it works or it doesn’t, and try, try again. Of course, maybe it’s quite mathematical and satisfying that you generally have a problem and the solution either works or it doesn’t. In marketing and CX it feels harder to measure success. Things frequently end up sort of working and the biggest challenge is to figure out what could possibly be wrong. That’s how I’ve built my career, using the data to figure that out and recommend a path forward.

I really admire the way the best engineers and architects are able to look at each new technological challenge with fresh vision and a drive to make a project innovative. The downside to this is that innovative people get bored pretty quickly when asked to do the same thing twice.

Lack of innovation not only leads to the death of businesses, but the death of the workers’ satisfaction and growth. The goal is to drive toward innovation with a fierce focus, whether you are a creative or an engineer or an accountant. If the client or the boss or company won’t remove the blinders and let you innovate, figure out small ways to sneak in new ways of doing things. Always continue learning. Don’t wait for others to show you the way.

What have you learned along the way?

I’d love to hear some interesting things you’ve learned in one industry that turned out to be words of wisdom for all industries.


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7 Marketing Automation Pitfalls

Starting a marketing automation program, whether for lead nurturing or for more sophisticated consumer marketing, can be daunting. After planning and initiating countless programs, I’ve compiled some common pitfalls that you can avoid, if you plan for them. I decided to post them after being asked to answering this question on Quora about what can go wrong when investing in a marketing automation solution.

Quoting/Selection Phase

1. Underestimating the level of support you’ll need, during implementation and beyond.

Whether you have your own development team or not, you will probably need assistance from the vendor or an outside contractor in order to complete your installation and integration, depending on the complexity of your existing systems and suite of websites. Often while our own dev team has the capability to do these things, they don’t have the time, or sometimes experience, to complete it quickly.

Some MA vendors require you to use a partner to implement and others have detailed knowledge-bases out there that are relatively easy for your team to pick up and implement. Make sure to include your engineering partners in the discussions early on so they can plan for the work if necessary or look over the specs to help you decide whether the APIs will meet your needs.

Also, strongly consider how much phone and chat support your team will need, as Act-On includes it, for example, but with Pardot we had to negotiate to get it included. I strongly recommend having strong customer service be one of your top considerations. You can use G2Crowd.com or other similar websites (including the Salesforce AppExchange ratings) to compare features and see reviews for the top marketing automation platforms.

2. Not planning for growth.

When you seek quotes with each MA vendor you need to account for both the total number of leads as well as the monthly frequency of message sending, as both of these items impact what the vendors will charge. Additionally you need to know the number of marketing and sales users you will need.

Will your company be acquiring other companies and need to integrate those leads and marketing plans into your system? That should be planned for. Will you have different marketing teams working with different divisions or groupings of leads and you need to ensure appropriate permissions so the groups can’t co-mingle? You’ll need enterprise-level capabilities enabling multiple instances, perhaps. These details are key in negotiating your contract.

Roll-out Phase

3. Thinking you can buy your way out of the complexity of a software integration project.

While developers on your side and the vendor’s can help integrate your marketing and CRM systems, without fully defining your communication and lead flow process in advance, you’ll make a lot of assumptions about things you can and can’t do. You won’t know sometimes until you get into the thick of it whether the system is flexible enough to suit your needs.

A good starting point is to have your nurture program mapped out into flow charts, addressing how your audience will be segmented and what content and communication channels they will be getting messages through. Don’t assume that these systems can incorporate SMS, push messages and email all through the same program. Verify! We’d love to have these technologies integrated but many of the vendors are just catching up. In a few cases they simply purchased companies that offer these services but never integrated them into the same user interface. They’ll sell you that they offer it all, but when you go to implement it it becomes a headache.

Work with your database guru to understand what fields will need to be maintained in the system in order to make your nurture program work, and how frequently those fields will be updated. Each action that initiates a communication or nurture step must have a data trigger that tells the system to “hit go”.

4. Forgetting to align your sales and marketing teams on how the lead program will work.

Even if you work really hard to align the teams, by putting together comprehensive training for the tools, showing the sales team how the new features can help them close deals, and getting everyone to agree how leads will be acquired and shared, it’s still probable that there will be confusion. For some sales execs this is a new way of working that takes getting used to. And for your marketing team, the new system will be complex and take some time to learn as well.

It’s important to educate and re-educate the team on how leads come into the system, how marketing determines that a lead is ready to be shared with sales, and how and when the lead comes into their CRM lead queue. Be careful with automation that impacts the customer. Use fail-safes so that you don’t automatically email lead lists that are loaded from conferences or *shudder* purchased from list vendors. These lists can be very dirty and cause havoc to your SPAM rating.

If sales isn’t on board, they will complain that marketing is spending money on a tool and not sharing the spoils. Some understand that a cold lead is best left to nurture until it’s ready to hatch. Others want a crack at everything that comes in. Sharing all the cool features like anonymous visitor tracking for the website and lead alerts that go right to sales’ inboxes will help keep everyone on board.

Messaging Phase

5. Forgetting there are humans on the other side.

Frequent offenders of this rule are auto dealerships. When it’s time for my car maintenance, I get a multiple phone calls, an email and a postcard. After service I get multiple communications to rate the dealership. Do not create programs that send too many communications! Remember to decrease frequency of messages if your customers or leads are not responding.

Also, when creating our segments and versions we often make many assumptions about the buying process and the types of content that will be relevant to buyers. Ensure you continue to test and improve upon all of your content, reviewing effectiveness monthly and tweaking to improve. You should have a very good idea about each of the phases of your sales process that a prospect goes through by talking with your sales teams and executives before you even think about what content to write.

6. Sending too many messages. Frequency settings and other fail-safes.

Testing can be extremely difficult with marketing automation systems because the level of personalization requires that you test each message once for each and every variation. The programs also incorporate wait steps and many if-then statements that add complexity to testing. One fail-safe that you can enact to help marketers sleep easier at night is the maximum messages per week setting. Setting this to 1 or 2 ensures that the impact of mistakes can be minimizes. You can also normally add many “automatic exit” conditions to your automated programs. Once the conditions become true, the lead exits the automated marketing. So for example once someone makes a purchase they should be removed from the general prospecting messaging. Your team may decide that if a salesperson is working with the prospect directly, they should stop getting automated sales messages.

ROI Evaluation

7. Making big assumptions about what’s working rather than setting up proper tracking.

Marketing automation tools continue to improve their reporting as they firm up on better integration with Salesforce and other CRM systems and as they develop comprehensive web analytics. But without using campaigns or other marketing tracking tools in your CRM system, you will not have a handle on which marketing and lead source channels are performing best at turning into sales. It’s difficult to track a lead all the way from the source through the sale, especially if you have a one year sales cycle or longer. You may touch a lead multiple times, so it’s important to  carefully track your lead source as well as all the “touches” that moves that lead to becoming a customer.

This article from Salesforce Ben explains the difference between campaigns and lead sources in Salesforce and how to use campaigns properly. One of the most common problems I find is that companies neglect to utilize this feature. You can also use your Salesforce lead or customer ID to integrate that data as a custom field into your web analytics platform for better marketing tracking.

Marching forth boldly

It takes a comprehensive planning and review process to get to vendor selection, implementation, and finally launch. You no longer need luck because you have been equipped with forewarning about some of the biggest missteps to avoid! If you have questions or need assistance, shoot me a note.